Archive for June 2014

June 28th   Leave a comment

Eider ducklings are still to be seen in Roome Bay. Some nearly full grown and others quite small. They seem to have hatched less synchronously this year. I picked up a little raft of ducklings and females through my telescope while I was watching puffins far out a few days ago. They were making their way bravely over to Crail from the May Island. I could see the adults and just make out the tiny black dots that must have been chicks making their slow progress towards the shore. It’s an epic journey that must take them all day. They can’t manage more than a mile an hour, but if the wind and tide are against them, or the sea gets rough it must be slower still. Roome Bay must seem like such a haven when they eventually get there.

Eider ducklings

Eider ducklings

I was in the highlands on Thursday and there are still lots of black-headed and common gulls up there breeding on the inland lochs and rivers. But more and more are arriving in Crail each day for the winter now. Some of the black-headed gulls still have their fine summer plumage (a brown rather than a black hood – if it truly has a black hood then it’s a Mediterranean gull or a little gull) but they will lose that soon. The juveniles take a little longer to get here than the adults. They don’t have anywhere specific to go to and spend time initially checking out the area where they were born for when they return to breed nearby in two years’ time and then moving to the shore and exploring a bit to find somewhere good to winter. The best cue a young gull can use to locate a good wintering site is probably the presence of adults. There will be a trade-off between finding brand new sites that an individual might have to themselves, but then might not be any good later in the winter, or joining lots of other gulls at what is clearly a good site, but with lots of competition to contend with.

Black-headed gull still in full breeding plumage

Black-headed gull still in full breeding plumage

Posted June 28, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 23rd   Leave a comment

There was a flock of 8 bar-headed geese around today. First reported from the golf course at Anstruther at mid-day and then later at Caiple. I went out twice to try and see them but failed both times. Not quite the disaster it might seem because bar-headed geese are not officially on the British list – these birds are almost certainly escapes from a wildfowl collection. They are on the cusp of becoming like Canada geese or even mute swans – a feral self-sustaining population in Britain – but not quite yet. The nearest wild population of bar-headed geese is in Mongolia or China and although they are spectacular migrants flying over the Himalayas to winter in northern India, there is no evidence that wild birds have ever made it to Europe. We have a problem with determining the origin of a lot of exotic wildfowl species that turn up – most global species are kept in captivity in Europe and they frequently escape – although coming up to you to feed on bread is a bit of a giveaway. Clearly it takes a lot of the fun out of the process of finding rare birds if they have just come from the zoo down the road rather than from the other side of the world. Bar-headed geese are very handsome birds though so I regret not seeing them for that reason.

Bar-headed geese at Caiple this afternoon - sadly rather unlikely to be from Mongolia, but I wasn't able to give them the bread test to make sure. Thanks to Jaqui Herrington for sending me the photo.

Bar-headed geese at Caiple this afternoon – sadly rather unlikely to be from Mongolia, but I wasn’t able to give them the bread test to make sure. Thanks to Jaqui Herrington for sending me the photo.

Posted June 23, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 22nd   Leave a comment

The soundscape at Kilrenny Common today was still loud and interesting but a number of species are winding down or have finished breeding completely. The robins are still singing but not for much longer. There are a lot of fledged, independent robins to show that most are done for the year. Young robins are brown and speckled with no trace of red until they moult in late August. This allows them to be more or less tolerated by the adults for their first few months. But after they too gain their red breasts then the gloves are off and they will be driven out to find their own territory. Robins are surprisingly vicious when establishing and defending their territories and many are killed in the process. Singing is their way of keeping the peace once territories are established. Rivals singing from adjacent territories are recognised and ignored because the resident knows that everyone is in their place. When a stranger appears, or a neighbour is in the wrong place then fighting will break out unless the interloper gives way and leaves. By the start of the autumn robin territories are established for the winter but then the migrants from Scandinavia start arriving to upset things again.

There were rows of newly fledged swallows perched along the wire fence of the cow field by the common. I think it has been a good year for the swallows with plenty of warm weather to bring the insects on. The young swallows were sitting patiently and waiting for their parents to deliver a package of flies or whatever small flying insect was the most common flying thing today. Cow fields are always good for swallows and their young because they attract lots of flies and particularly dung flies. In Africa and in Europe, where they can, swallows are pretty much large animal followers. It might be just cows at Kilrenny, but from October to March it will be wildebeest, giraffes, elephants, camels, kudu, zebras – you name it. Every adult swallow you see in Crail will have seen every large grazing mammal species between here and Cape Town. Some of the carnivores in Africa are pretty fly infested too and a highlight a couple of years ago year was watching swallows hawking amongst a pride of lions in Tanzania (with European bee-eaters higher above to really make it a spectacle). I am glad the swallows share a little bit of this with us even if it was only cows at Kilrenny today.

A newly fledged swallow being fed by its parent

A newly fledged swallow being fed by its parent

Posted June 22, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 20th   Leave a comment

The sea has been fairly calm for most of this week. In the evenings this means that you can see all the seabirds going in and out of the Forth from Crail. Hundreds every minute: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes and shags for the most part with the occasional manx shearwater passing by on an anti-clockwise circuit of Britain from a colony somewhere on the west coast. Occasionally there are big groups of all these species gathering where there are fish. Harder to spot – often these groups are comprised of dots even through my telescope – are the cetaceans below them. Today there were a couple of porpoises – with their distinctive blunt heads and stubby dorsal fins just visible. They come to the surface much less often than dolphins. Porpoises have a problem with the bottle-nosed dolphins: the dolphins are frequently aggressive to porpoises and will strike and kill them, probably because they compete for the same resources. Porpoises are much smaller so have to keep out the way, or keep their body mass lower to enable them to manoeuvre out of trouble more easily. The result is that porpoises have lower fat reserves in areas where there are dolphins and are more likely to starve in poor conditions: a double whammy. It pushes the porpoises into a more marginal existence. We think the same thing is happening with sparrowhawks and sparrows. Sparrowhawks as the name suggests have sparrows on top of their menu and so sparrows can only thrive where there is plenty of cover for them to escape to, and when they can make a rapid escape. Like the porpoises they keep their mass low to maximise their ability to accelerate out of trouble, and like the porpoises they suffer a double whammy of higher starvation risk when conditions are bad in winter. Natural history is full of such interactions that make it so interesting and the best puzzle of all.

Kittiwake - they are busy feeding chicks now on the May island so are passing Crail constantly

Kittiwake – they are busy feeding chicks now on the May island so are passing Crail constantly

Posted June 21, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 15th   Leave a comment

I was out in a kayak this afternoon and paddled from Roome Bay to West Braes and back. Hardly an adventurous voyage but it was so calm and quiet that it seemed wrong to make any sort of effort. I tried to get close to a couple of puffins that were fishing a few hundred meters from the harbour. They just dived as I approached and re-emerged fifty meters away. They can swim pretty fast underwater and their default response to danger is to dive and swim for it rather than fly. If you have ever watched a puffin taking off, particularly on a still day you will know why. They barely look capable of getting airborne and once so they wobble alarmingly as if at any moment they are going to lose control. Their wobbliness in flight is so characteristic that you can use it to identify puffins as they fly by, even when kilometres out. The other auks fly in a much more even, definite way. All the auks find it tough though to take off, with their short wings more adapted for flying underwater than in air and all will dive under the water when they feel threatened. This makes them particularly vulnerable to oiling. Gulls might fly off and leave an oiled area but auks submerge and as they get more stressed get covered again and again with each dive.

It't tough being a puffin when you want to get airborne

It’t tough being a puffin when you want to get airborne

There were also a few terns out from the May Island to take advantage of the fishing near Crail. I saw all three species: sandwich, common and Arctic in the space of an hour. At one point I had an arctic tern and a common tern flying side by side. The difference in the way they fly was as obvious as between a puffin and a guillemot. Arctic terns look like they are one of those child’s mobiles that you pull a string and the wings flap up and down, but with unnaturally deep strokes and with the body bouncing up impossibly high with each down stroke. Common terns in comparison look less like they are made of elastic – light and easy fliers for sure but much more like gulls with their bodies staying much more level with each wing beat. I really value this insights because most views of seabirds aren’t from a few meters away on a calm sea. Like for the auks, the flight action of a tern can really help to identify it when it is kilometres out.

Arctic tern - flying elastic

Arctic tern – flying elastic

At this time of year I feel slightly cheated because even as we still haven’t passed the solstice and the temperatures are still rising I start to think of the autumn approaching. I can’t help it when the signs are everywhere. Hundreds of starlings and their noisy fledglings, a few pairs of mallards and even the first goosander of the year, all in Roome Bay and settling in to moult post-breeding. There was even the first couple of black-headed gulls back after finishing (probably after losing their nest or chicks) trying to breed this year on an inland loch.

On Tuesday night it was fairly clear with a bright moon. At about 11pm Saturn was fantastically visible just by it. Through my telescope I could see the rings really well with a gap between them and the planet, and for the first time I could even see bands. Mars was glowing red a little further to the east, and I watched it a huge bright star started drifting between the planets taking a few minutes to pass across the southern sky. I was the international space station of course. Perhaps not wild or natural, but beautiful in the night sky nonetheless. Saturn will be visible in the southeast, roughly above the May Island for a bit longer and is well worth looking out for- even through binoculars you can just make out it is an odd ovoid shape because of the rings.

Posted June 15, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 8th   Leave a comment

Young starlings hanging out at the beach at Balcomie this morning

Young starlings at the beach at Balcomie this morning

I have been worrying about where all the young starlings are. Most fledged more than a week ago but as I walk around Crail I can only find adults. This morning, on Balcomie beach it all became clear. There were hundreds of young starlings down there, waiting for their parents to dig out seaweed fly maggots. Perhaps the whole fledged starling population of Crail to Fife Ness. The adults were digging in the huge piles of now very rotten and smelly seaweed that has built up on the beach over the last three weeks of mainly easterly winds. This high density of food for the seaweed flies is now being translated into a feast for the starlings. Not only is there enough food there to ensure that the fledglings are well fed in their crucial first couple of weeks before full independence, they also have great safety in numbers.

There was also a flock of about 15 sanderlings exploiting the seaweed flies. Unlike the starlings they are fattening up before breeding. They are still on their way north to the high Arctic where there may still be snow cover for another week. The seaweed flies must be a valuable food source for them just as for the starlings, allowing the sanderlings to feed up very quickly and in safety. They still have several thousand kilometres to fly and may have already come from as far away as South Africa. There were some other extreme Arctic waders roosting on the rocks at Fife Ness that were also probably on their way north: eight turnstones in their bright orange, black and white breeding plumage. With them was a single knot – this wasn’t showing any trace of their summer pinky-red colour so may have been a bird taking a year off from breeding, or a young bird. Why it should have been heading north too is a mystery to me – non-breeding birds are probably better off staying on their wintering grounds rather than hazarding a very long migration. But some adults do turn up to breed still in winter plumage. They may be in poor condition or older birds that are trying to make the best of a bad job because their options of surviving to breed next year are reduced.

Summer plumage sanderling at Balcomie

Summer plumage sanderling at Balcomie

Garden carpet - common in Crail gardens

Silver-ground carpet – common in Crail gardens (thanks to Richard Byrne for pointing out this was wrongly captioned)

The summer moth season is well underway. Crail is not a great place for moths and our garden moth trap never gets more than few species. But identification of what we do have is always fun and often a challenge. At the moment a national moth survey is hoping to document all of the large moth species in 10 by 10 km squares. Apparently there is only one species recorded for the Crail square so far! Even with our poor catches I think we can up the total. On Friday night we caught five species but mostly the very common and ubiquitous carpet moths.

Posted June 8, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 6th   Leave a comment

There were 14 or so eider ducklings with three females in Roome Bay this evening. The chicks are still small but just getting a bit too big for the gulls so fingers crossed that they will now make it. It’s been nice and calm over the last few days so any more crossing from the May Island would have had an easy journey. Yesterday evening was almost flat calm with an uninterrupted view of the hundreds of puffins also coming from the island. They seem to mostly head out past Crail but only a few come back that way. They must return much further out. If you look at the east slope of the island through a telescope on a clear evening it looks like there is a cloud of bees as the puffins make the last part of their flight back to their burrows to take their turn at incubation.

As I passed Pinkerton this evening I heard the familiar, but unusual for Crail, deep honking call of some Canada geese passing over. A group of 12 heading low towards Balcomie. A flock using the fields between Fife Ness and Boarhills is becoming a bit of a summer feature for us.

There are a couple of whitethroats in Crail that are now busy feeding chicks. More southerly birds can manage to fit in two broods, but up here any whitethroat will be lucky to get their chicks fledged and fully independent by the end of June, not leaving much time for another brood. A migrant is really up against it because they must fit in a change of feathers before their migrations starts – for many birds even by the end of August. It seems like a good insect year with lots of food available and not too much cool wet weather, so I hope it will be a good breeding season.

A male common whitethroat busy feeding chicks

A male common whitethroat busy feeding chicks

Posted June 6, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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